My feelings affect what I hear from others. When we feel guilt, we hear condemnation. Even from Jesus.
“You will all desert me” is the New Living Translation of Matthew 26:31. It sounds like committing apostasy, and it has been heard that way since the second century.
But desert is an active word, and Jesus used the passive voice. He didn’t say they would fall away from the faith; he said they would be felled by the events of that night.
Jesus wasn’t blaming them. He was blaming God:
Matthew 26:31 (a literal translation)
Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be felled in me tonight, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”
The night before the cross, Jesus was okay with blaming his Father for what was about to happen to him, and for the devastating effect this would have on his followers. Their faith in him was being murdered with him.
The quotation from Zechariah 13:7 referred to Israel’s story. As we discussed, God had cut off David’s descendants as the shepherds of his people because they harmed the flock (2 Kings 21:10-16; Ezekiel 34). So, God’s decree was behind the death of the last good king who was struck down in a battle with Egypt (2 Kings 23:25-30). When the king fell, the kingdom fell. For six centuries, God’s flock served the rulers of the nations, scattered like sheep without a shepherd.
Now Rome was continuing that tragedy. The king of the Jews was about to be stuck down because Jesus was living in the history of his people, and God had given them to the nations. That’s what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. That’s why he blames God.
But the shepherd’s pastoral heart was more concerned with how they would be affected than with his own looming death. Zechariah alerted him to how devastating it would be for his little flock to see God’s anointed shepherd struck down. Again. All their hopes dashed.
That night, when the king fell, the kingdom was felled in him (ὑμεῖς σκανδαλισθήσεσθε ἐν ἐμοὶ). It was the darkest moment of history. God’s governance completely withdrawn. Not a soul remaining under his kingship.
With the death of the Firstborn looming, Jesus felt the darkness spreading over them all, a darkness that can be felt (Exodus 10:21). His friends could not support him when he needed them most, when it felt like his Father had abandoned him.
No, this is not a resigned fatalism, as if Jesus thought everything is predestined so we passively accept whatever comes our way. There were many times when Jesus withdrew to avoid danger (Matthew 4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21). Not this time. This was different.
He believed his Father was asking him — as the anointed king — to shoulder the injustice of the world, to enter into the demise of his people, to die for their release.
Strange how God uses his power. Surely, he could have given Jesus authority to call down fire from heaven on their enemies, a nuclear bomb or angelic host aimed at Rome. But God knows evil cannot be solved through destruction and retribution. Explosions leave a power vacuum where evil thrives.
God put himself in the firing line, to take the bullet designed to destroy his people. Jesus knew this was what he had been asked to do for his people. No one was taking his life from him. The good shepherd was giving his life for his flock (John 10:17-18).
God doesn’t destroy evil; he undoes it. If the death of God’s anointed is the worst evil in history, then the resurrection and enthronement of God’s anointed is the undoing of evil, the reversal of all that’s wrong.
That’s what Jesus expected. When he had died as the shepherd of his people, God would raise him up to lead his flock:
26:32 “But after I have been raised up, I will lead you to Galilee.”
This made no sense to his little flock. For them, the shepherd dying meant the tragedy was not solved. Plucky Pete would take on the whole Roman Empire if that’s what it took to save Jesus:
Matthew 26:33-35 (my translation)
33 Peter answered him, “Even if they’re all felled in you, I will never be felled!
34 Jesus affirmed, “I tell you the truth: this night — before the rooster crows — three times you will disown me.”
35 Peter says to him, “Even if I have to die with you, I will not disown you!” And the other disciples said the same.
Full marks for enthusiasm, but contradicting their leader isn’t following him.
Jesus pushes back. Disown is a strong challenge to their allegiance. Disowning Jesus places them on the wrong side of the Father who appointed Jesus as king (Matthew 10:33). But acknowledging the Christ means disowning the self, being crucified with him as the way he receives the kingdom from his Father (16:24).
The others follow Peter rather than Jesus. Jesus doesn’t need to argue. They’re proving his point.
People who rely on power cannot understand the cross. It’s the wisdom of God that breaks the cycle of violence, that undoes the power of evil.
The cross does not stand in history as God’s accusation against the world. It stands as God reconciling the world to himself.
The shepherd was struck. The sheep were scattered. The shepherd was raised up to lead the human herd on his Father’s farm.
Open Matthew 26:31-35.
What others are saying
A “targum” was an interpretative translation of the OT into Aramaic (Jesus’ language). Here’s the Targum of Zechariah 13:7-9:
7 O sword, be revealed against the king and against the prince his companion who is his equal, who is like him, says the Lord of hosts; slay the king and the princes shall be scattered and I will bring back a mighty stroke upon the underlings. 8 And it shall come to pass in all the land, says the Lord, two parts which are in it shall be destroyed; they shall perish, and a third shall be left in it. 9 And I will bring the third into affliction, into a furnace of fire, and I will refine them just as they refine silver and will try them just as they try gold. They shall pray in my name and I will hear their prayer; I have said, ‘They are my people’, and they shall say, ‘The Lord is our God.’
— Kevin J. Cathcart et al (eds), The Aramaic Bible: The Targum of the Minor Prophets, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.